What can we say about evil? Perhaps not much at all.
The problem of evil is the most enduring moral conundrum of all history. And it has reduced some of the greatest thinkers of the tradition to mere silence.
Although evil doesn’t exist, strictly speaking, we still know it’s there. And we’re strangely willing to admit it, too—despite cultural common sense that there’s nothing apart from mere goodness and bigotry at work in the cosmos. (Bigotry isn’t quite evil, I take it, since it doesn’t assert a diametric opposition to something positive.) That’s pretty much what we’re left with. And then someone sets off a bomb at the Boston Marathon, walks into a school and murders kids: suddenly, there’s something else.
Intellectually, the problem of evil is devastating. There’s nothing we can really say or think about it per se, but we’re nevertheless forced, time and again, to acknowledge its presence. Now is one of those times—just like any other day for any number of people suffering any number of tragedies. It’s always easy to forget about when seas are calm; but when it rears its head, you’d better look out: a sudden encounter with evil can be a widow maker.
Still, when detected, evil becomes no less potent; this is something worth remembering. It’s not simply that we cast a beam of insight on it and evil flees our presence. The light of the intellect is hardly bright enough to dispel something that, while insubstantial, is far more than just a notion. If evil is merely an idea, then so is goodness, to which it’s opposed.
The power of evil lies in an ability to produce actual effects—like the deaths of the innocent (or guilty), pain, anguish, and destruction. Most of us intuit that evil isn’t limited to headline events of terrorism or genocide; neither are its effects limited only to the obvious. Yet no matter the scale, evil is evil, and its effects are actual.
Comments like these at The Atlantic, coming in the wake of yesterday’s attack, are designed to offer perspective on dealing with the problem of evil—mainly, on rallying from the shock of what it can produce. The author aims to help us recover a sense of power and security:
We don’t have to be scared, and we’re not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.
Yet instead of recommending something concrete, we’re left to intellectualize the problem—it’s a convenient way to deal with the unknown, but hardly a real solution. What’s more, this offering surfaces time and again in the wake of every newsworthy tragedy: rationalization masquerading as safety; obstinance and resilience parading as goodness.
The true triumph of evil occurs when we fail to take opportunities, like the Boston Marathon bombing and Sandy Hook, to act decisively against the actual effects of evil in our own lives. We might never be entirely “safe,” the article reminds us. But we must ask ourselves, is “safe” what we ought to be at all? (A hint: there’s no moral imperative to be safe, yet sometimes we are bound to take risks.) When evil is reduced to a mere idea—defeated by positive thoughts—then our own capacity for valor is infinitely diminished. If we’re troubled by the power of evil, there’s no better way to guarantee its victory than to simply think it away.
Alternately, we can engage the actual effects of evil we experience daily. We can begin to believe that evil—real evil—is always present. We can even come to learn (through our mature belief) that evil won’t achieve ultimate victory, and we can see to it by never forgetting for a moment that the problem it offers—the pain, suffering, and destruction it causes—are very real, indeed.
If reality can sometimes be an inglorious thing, then so too can the acts that work to preserve its goodness—much less glorious, to be sure, than the type of luminous idealization that tends to follow tragedy, and which inevitably evaporates at the next emergence of darkness. But glory isn’t really what’s at stake in these moments: first we must secure the good.